Cherie Priest: Wings to the Kingdom

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Deep river, my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground

Trad. spiritual, Civil War era

This review originally ran on Green Man Review.

Cherie Priest’s brilliant first novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, introduced the intrepid Eden Moore, psychic and polished steel magnolia. Wings To The Kingdom is not precisely a sequel, but a second chapter set in Eden’s overlapping worlds — Priest’s beautifully detailed culture of the South, and the world of the dead: immediately adjacent, and always visible to Eden. Wings is more firmly based in the physical world than Blackbirds was, but it’s every bit as fascinating. Once again, Priest succeeds in making her story both straightforward and exquisitely strange.

Priest has set Wings To The Kingdom at Chickamagua and Chattanooga National Military Park, the nation’s oldest and largest Civil War park. It’s known as a peaceful place, where graves are never desecrated and bones are not moved; a vast memorial, the resting place of thousands of Civil War dead of both sides. Now, suddenly, the dead are walking there, right up to picnicking families in broad daylight, and trying to communicate. They mouth frantic messages in silence, and point insistently to a particular section of the park. What do they want? What is disturbing them, and what has let them sleep in peace until now? Some of the living are frightened, some are just intrigued; but everyone agrees something unusual is happening there. There’s a small-town acceptance of the phenomenon that is peculiarly Southern — they may be ghosts, but they’re still local boys.

As Wings To The Kingdom opens, Eden Moore is trying to get on with as normal a life as she can manage. Her relatives — dead, alive, sane and not so sane — are all either doing well or at least lying quietly. But Eden can see the dead, and someone has been spreading her name and psychic skills on the paranormal gossip circuit. Desperate strangers keep approaching her with pitiable mementoes — first baby teeth, locks of hair — and won’t believe that she can’t contact their loved ones at will. However, Eden is not precisely a medium:   she just sees the dead. And if Eden finds the source, he or she is going to wish they were dead.

Aside from that, though, life is not bad. But at nearby Chickamagua, things are getting strange indeed. It is so unusual that a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators, Trip and Dana Marshall, are on the way with tons of TV hoopla, to find out what is disturbing the dead of Chickamagua. Eden is not especially interested in any of this, but her friends are. Benny, an aspiring paranormal investigator himself, is thrilled both at the sightings and the chance to meet the famous Marshalls; he promptly talks Eden into sneaking into the park after dark to see what they — or rather, Eden — can see.

At this point, all hell breaks loose. The ghosts of Chickamagua are flocking over the grounds like the fog that closes down over the graves at dark. A very real maniac with a gun is taking lethal potshots at the Marshalls. Eden’s cousin Malachi, no longer homicidal but still as weird as snakes’ suspenders, shows up on the grounds of a nearby mental hospital, begging for Eden’s help. Eden, while hunting for the hapless Malachi in the dark, comes face to face with the pivotal character in the tale: Old Green Eyes.

Chickamagua is well-known to the cognoscenti of ghost lore as the home ground of Old Green Eyes, one of the scariest of Civil War phantoms. A huge spectre with enormous glowing green eyes, he is reputed to be the guardian of the honored dead of Chickamagua, and has been seen by hundreds of visitors over the last 150 years. He is an ancient spirit with a duty to the dead, and Priest makes him a terrifying guardian but as compellingly noble as Atticus Finch.

Wings To The Kingdom has the same marvelous voice as Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Eden’s easy narration, that matter-of-fact view of the world that draws the reader in completely. Eden’s personal travails are less central here, but that’s because she is so very clearly drawn and established:  we know her, we can keep her story in the background while all the intriguing weirdness goes on in front of us. This is a trust Priest maintains between herself and the readers, and it gives a great hard focus to a story wreathed in mist and myth. Eden’s struggles with Malachi (who may be technically sane but really needs a keeper) are fairly hilarious, reminding me of family stories about inconveniently eccentric relatives. Benny and his hero-worship of the Marshalls is straight out of “reality” ghost hunters shows on television. It relaxes and lulls one right up to the point where, in the immense dark graveyard of Chickamagua, the final confrontation of the living and the dead seizes one and does not let go.

Dead generals who made a bargain with an old god; the voices of the dead issuing vaguely but irresistibly from ghosts or family letters; the quiet streets around Chickamagua itself, where spectral cannon shots and battlefield screams are as common as raccoons in the garbage — Priest paints a fascinating picture of the past and present of an old battlefield. Whether that battlefield is literally Chickamagua or the human soul is wisely left to the perceptions of the reader.

Cherie Priest has a voice full of joy and wisdom. Like all good writers (and her own heroine Eden), she sees the dead. And she can tell their stories.

(Tor, 2006)

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